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Michael Hancher / Jr.-Sr. Seminar: Street Ballads

English 3960, sec. 2
Junior-Senior Seminar:
Street Ballads

Spring 1997 / MWF, 1:25-2:15 p.m.
Lind Hall 215 / Michael Hancher

THE BEST-SELLING works of English literature early in the nineteenth century were written not by such famous authors as Wordsworth or Byron or Austen or Scott, but by anonymous hacks, who often worked under time pressure at the counter of a local pub. There they wrote ballads, songs, and "news" reports that were sold on the streets to the urban poor, by impoverished hawkers, for a penny a sheet. Thousands of these works, usually "illustrated" by eye-catching wood engravings, were printed in the slums of London and the provinces. Some were recycled from oral tradition; some purported to be what TV now calls Eyewitness News, and were pitched at the same level of sensationalism. The most sensational street ballads sold hundreds of thousands of copies. (The printers, who dealt in hype, sometimes claimed millions of copiesóthis in a country with a population of eleven million people, many of whom could not read.) Because these ballads were so cheap, so plentiful, so popular, so subliterary, and so low-class, they have almost entirely disappeared. Amateur collectors saved the relatively few survivors: these are now mostly housed in scattered research libraries, from London to Minneapolis. Only a few have been reprinted.

This seminar will study samples of this literature, placing them in historical context. We will focus on several scrapbooks of street ballads that are owned by the Department of Special Collections and Rare Books, Wilson Library. Much of the work of the seminar will involve selecting particularly interesting items from those scrapbooks, finding out as much about them as we can, and editing them for electronic publication on the World Wide Webówhere they may once again find readers in the thousands, if not millions.


  • Leslie Shepard. The Broadside Ballad: A Study in Origins and Meaning (subtitle on cover: The Development of the Street Ballad from Traditional Song to Popular Newspaper). Hatboro, PA: Legacy, 1978. ISBN 0ñ913714ñ01ñ1 (paper).
Course packet includes the following items:
  • Scrapbook, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Wilson Library, catalogued as Collection of eighty street ballads on forty sheets, mostly with a woodcut printed at London, the majority by J. Catnach (1820ñ1830).
  • Excerpts from scrapbooks, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, catalogued as Collection of ballads, songsheets (<London>: J. Pitts, 1805-1840?).
  • Charles Dickens. "Seven Dials." Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People. 1835-36. Ed. Andrew Lang. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1898. 81ñ86.
  • Henry Mayhew. London Labour and the London Poor: The Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Cannot Work, and Will Not Work. 4 vols. 2nd ed. London: Griffin, n.d. [1865]:
    • "Of the Publishers and Authors of Street-Literature" (1:234)
    • "Of Long Song-Sellers" (1: 235)
    • "Long-Song Seller" (wood engraving ) (1:209)
    • "Of Street ëBallads on a Subject'" (1:297ñ99)
    • "Of the Street Poets and Authors" (1:300ñ01)
    • "Of the Experience of a Street Author, or Poet" (1:301ñ02)
    • "Of the ëGallows' Literature of the Streets" (1:302ñ04, 307ñ09)
  • "The Poetry of Seven Dials." Quarterly Review 112 (1867): 200ñ13.
Primary documents:
  • Collection of 13 broadsheets and street ballads. N.p.: n.d. (Contents: <1> The British Neptune; or, Convivial songster.--<2> Comus's chaplet.--<3> Twentieth century music hall songs.--<4> The bouquet.--<5> A song sung on Monday, 18th. of April, 1814.--<6> Tax and axe.--<7> West of England agricultural show.--<9> Yeovil agricultural show.--<10> A copy of verses for the year 1830.--<11> Figaro in London. no. 167. Feb. 14, 1835.--<12> A poem on the ever memorable battle of Waterloo.--<13> A poem on the exile of Buonaparte.) WILSON Rare Books 820.1 C686.
  • Collection of ballads, songsheets. 2 vols. London: J. Pitts, 1805-1840?. (216 broadside ballads.) WILSON Rare Books Quarto 820.1 Z.
  • Collection of eighty street ballads on forty sheets, mostly with a woodcut printed at London, the majority by J. Catnach (1820ñ1830). London : n.p., n.d. WILSON Rare Books Quarto 820.1 C683.
Some relevant books:
  • Anderson, Patricia. The Printed Image and the Transformation of Popular Culture, 1790-1860. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1991. WILSON Z1003 .A57.
  • Ashton, John, ed. Modern Street Ballads. London: Chatto and Windus, 1888. WILSON 820.1 As3m.
  • Carnell, Peter W. Ballads in the Charles Harding Firth Collection of the University of Sheffield : A Descriptive Catalogue With Indexes. Sheffield, Eng.: Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language, University of Sheffield, 1979. WILSON Quarto PR507 .C37x 1979.
  • óóó. Broadside Ballads and Song-Sheets from the Hewins Mss. Collection in Sheffield University Library: A Descriptive Catalogue with Indexes and Notes. Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield University Library and the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language, 1987. WILSON Quarto PR507 .C37x 1987.
  • Fraser, Claud Lovat, ed. Old Broadside Ballads, Reproduced from Original Examples in Facsimile. Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1974. WILSON 820.1 F8616.
  • Henderson, W. Victorian Street Ballads: A Selection of Popular Ballads Sold In the Street in the Nineteenth Century. London: Country Life, 1937. WILSON 820.114 H37.
  • Hindley, Charles, ed. Curiosities of Street Literature. London: Reeves and Turner, 1871. WILSON AnnexóSub Basement Quarto 820 C926.
  • óóó. The Life and Times of James Catnach, Late of Seven Dials, Ballad Monger. London: Reeves and Turner, 1878. WILSON 019.242 C29h.
  • Holloway, John, and Joan Black, eds. Later English Broadside Ballads. London: Routledge, 1975. WILSON 820.1 H728.
  • Pollard, Michael, ed. Ballads and Broadsides. Oxford: Pergamon, 1969. WILSON 820.1 P762.
  • Popular Literature in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain. Reading, Eng.: Research Publications, 1985-1990. WILSON Mfilm 3877; WILSON Reference PR149 .P66 P67x 1990.
  • Shepard, Leslie. The History of Street Literature: The Story of Broadside Ballads, Chapbooks, Proclamations, News-Sheets, Election Bills, Tracts, Pamphlets, Cocks, Catchpennies and other Ephemera. Newton Abbot, Eng.: David and Charles, 1973. WILSON 820 Sh465.
  • óóó. John Pitts: Ballad Printer of Seven Dials, London 1765-1844; With a Short Account of His Predecessors in the Ballad and Chapbook Trade. London: Private Libraries Association, 1969. WILSON 019.242 P687s.
  • Simpson, Claude M. The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966. MUSIC 784.4942 Si58.
  • Wiltenburg, Joy. Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany. Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 1992. WILSON PR418 .W65 W55.

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Michael Hancher
Department of English, University of Minnesota
URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/prosstre.html>
Comments to: mh@umn.edu
Created 4 March 1997
Last revised 29 June 1997